Thursday, September 26, 2013

Misusing the Moon Crystal

I was thinking about childish depictions of mad scientists and construction. Typically, they use everyday objects in ways that almost make sense, but not quite.

For example, in the new Luigi's Haunted Mansion game, the scientist cleans shards of the moon crystal by sticking them on a record-player turntable and spinning it around while scrub-brushes happen to be nearby.

The trope is hardly new. The Incredible Machine is a whole series of games about misusing common devices such as balloons, lighters, and mousetraps to accomplish whatever weird objectives you might have.

I got to thinking about this when I saw a preview of the new Terraria version. It was raining, and a lot of the enemies broke out rain gear. One of the players said they were going to kill a slime because they wanted the umbrella. The slime kicked his ass, so I never learned whether he could have gotten that umbrella, but the idea gelled a bit in my head.

I love constructive games, but one of the biggest issues with them is the functionality of the various pieces you get. If you expand the breadth of parts and functionality, you will start to drown the player in complexly nuanced alternatives that are hard to tell apart. For example, in lightly modded Kerbal, there are fifty different rocket engines. They do all have different stats. Some are vectored, some perform better at sea level, some in vacuum... but they blur together because there's so many of them. You'll typically just choose one for each size category and stick with it.

But if you misuse objects, then they come with additional color context that keeps them feeling distinct. Moreover, if the ability to misuse them is flexible enough, you can also make it easy for mods to add new items and encourage their misuse.

For example, an umbrella. You could see it being added to the game, and the stats are put in. What is it useful for? It, uh, it keeps the rain off your head when you hold it? Not terribly exciting. Maybe you add in the ability to strip it down for resources.

But what if we allowed the player to creatively misuse the umbrella?

The umbrella sheds falling water. If falling water matters, you could mount an umbrella in places to shunt water away - for example, to keep a candle lit, or with a whole bunch of them to serve as a roof. If our physics is decent, then shedding water is the same as being water resistant, so flipping the umbrella upside-down would allow it to become a boat or a water-holding dish. Sure, with low maximum strain, but that's fine.

The added capability of the umbrella to open and close allows you to use the water-shedding/retaining abilities more freely, while the existence of the handle offers a specific mount/control point. So you could create a rain-shade that moves umbrellas out and flicks them open when it rains, and does the opposite when it's sunny.

But the existence of the flip-open mechanism can be used without the water-shedding capability of the umbrella itself. You could use it to nudge things. Glue a string to the umbrella and yank on it by opening and closing. You can also use non-water things - use the umbrella to contain helium, or dog food. Whatever.

You could also go cartoony: the drag on the umbrella acts as a parachute when open. This makes it both more valuable to equip and also suitable for even more misuse if you build devices that go into the air or need to fall slowly.

Anyway, when someone mods in an umbrella, if they know what they're doing they can build it so that the player can misuse it in a fantastic number of fun ways. Moreover, if someone else mods in slimes carrying around umbrellas when it rains, this changes the context and common-ness of the umbrella, effectively completely changing its nature. People who would never have bothered using umbrellas as design objects now find they have plenty of them, and start to look for ways to use them.

The fact that they are umbrellas rather than "extendo-joints" adds a lot to the context and memorability of them. It also allows us to package several distinct pieces of functionality into one object but still make it easy to remember: everyone knows how an umbrella works, so when you see it operating as part of a device, you can quickly grasp that it can open and close and keep water out and is pretty light and so on. There's no mystery. It's one composite object with a lot of functions and attributes... and we already know them all! With a glance!

A lot of modern mechanisms are a bit too slick for this, which is why turn-of-the-20th-century mechanisms are so popular. A vacuum does specific things in grand strokes, and it can be misused in all sorts of delightful ways. A cell phone, however, has a much more nuanced and complex set of operations that makes it difficult to misuse, unless you simplify it down to "vibrates when called".

Any way you cut it, though, adding in these complex, context-heavy items and allowing the player to misuse them should allow for a more vibrant world, and a wider variety of items without the feeling of drowning in variations.


Verzor said...

I like the idea of allowing game objects to be used for unintended or unforseen uses. My approach is a little different I think. Instead of complex objects, I would rather have a game with a larger number of somewhat less complex behaviors, and allow objects to have many of these behaviors. Preferably the assignment of behaviors to objects would occur in easily moddable data files rather than code.

Using the umbrella example, some examples of behaviors might include "prevent rainfall from wetting user", "diverting rain", "simple parachute (slow fall)", or "parachute controlled flight". The key point of separate behaviors is that these could be attached to any object, whether or not it makes sense ordinarily. A similar separation would be helpful in a game like Kerbal: it would be nice to choose optional behaviors on a "design-an-engine" screen.

One good reason for separating objects from behaviors is that it can allow people with different skill sets to work on what they are good at (typically art *or* programming--those who can do both are probably writing their own games :). Perhaps it might help to think of "objects" as skins for a collection of behaviors.

I could go on (at length!) but this is the main idea. --Verzor

Craig Perko said...

That's what I've been doing, but I think you'll find players drown in extremely similar options.